Story Of London

Toilets in London: Part One – A history of the WC

Toilets in London: Part 1 – A history of the WC
by Anthony Waldstock

No, it was not invented by an eponymous plumber! That association only came about when American soldiers on their way to the European front in the First World War made their first acquaintence with a flushed toilet in England. It has a longer history that that. Amongst the first two documented users of the flush toilet was Elizabeth I – who was considered eccentric because of her fastidiousness in the area of personal hygiene. The inventer of the first WC, Elizabeth’s godson, was out and out lunatic however – he took a bath every day! This is the first article in a series that will explore the provision of public and private sanitation in London – from the “parlous” latrine at Fleet Bridge to the “now you see it, now you don’t” UriLift of today.

Toilets in London: Part One – A history of the WC

Thomas Crapper did NOT invent the toilet and he was never knighted. He did have a part to play in the evolution of the water closet but it was a small one and will be dealt with in its proper place. The myth that ‘Sir’ Thomas Crapper was the father of this device dates from the First World War when American doughboys passing through England on their way to the battlefields in Europe made their first acquaintance with the flushing toilet. They saw the words T. Crapper-Chelsea printed on the tanks and coined the slang “crapper” meaning toilet. The word ‘crap’ is NOT derived from that gentleman’s name but has a much earlier, if somewhat obscure, origin.

Well, that is one myth disposed of. More recently, there has been an apparent attempt to create another. A Reuters report in July 2000 brought us the startling fact that archaeologists had discovered a 2,000-year-old toilet complete with running water, a stone seat and a comfortable armrest. This was in the tomb of a king of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC to 24 AD), who believed his soul would need to enjoy human life after death. It quotes the Xinhua news agency as saying “This top-grade stool is the earliest of its kind ever discovered in the world, meaning that the Chinese used the world’s earliest water closet which is quite like what we are using today. It was a great invention and a symbol of social civilization of that time.”

This reads very much like propaganda and, indeed, on digging deeper, we find one of the archaeologists involved in the dig saying that the royal lavatory was “just two stone slabs with a hole in between,” and bore a marked resemblance to the plumbing used by hundreds of millions of today’s Chinese. The tomb’s drainage system appeared to have more to do with channeling away rainwater, a necessary arrangement in any tomb designed to withstand the ravages of time and weather. It may, indeed, turn out that this is a genuine example of a flushing toilet but the evidence to date is contradictory.

The only well-attested ancient claim for the water closet is to be found in the palace of King Minos in Crete. This was constructed about 1700 BC and has what many hold to be the world’s first “flushing” lavatory, a toilet which is flanked by two cisterns which held rainwater. Apart from that, there is no record of a flushed toilet until a godson of Elizabeth I invented Britain’s first valve closet in1596.

The inventor was a successful poet, Sir John Harington who described the invention in his book The Metamorphosis of Ajax. The title is a pun on the word ‘jakes’ which was the slang for lavatory then in vogue. The book included a detailed description of the items required for its construction and diagrams to demonstrate how it worked. The costs of individual items are even included (total outlay was 30 shillings and 6 pence). By means of his closet “unsavoury Places may be made sweet, noisome places made wholesome, filthy places made cleanly”.

The operation of the closet was straightforward. Water was pumped up into a cistern, (a contemporary illustration how the cistern with fish swimming in it) and then conducted to the pan of the closet and retained there by a valve or plug, which could be pulled up by a handle in the seat. This discharged the contents of the pan into a cesspool beneath. His water-closet therefore resembled a modern flush lavatory in all respects. There was a reservoir of water constantly in the bowl which prevented foul air from rising from the pipe and a discharge that flushed down all the inside walls.

Only two Harington water closets are known to have been built. One for his own use at his country seat, Kelston, near Bath, the other at Richmond Palace at the express command of is godmother. Both Elizabeth and her godson were well known at the time for being eccentric in their attention to personal hygiene. The Queen, for example, was described as uncommonly fastidious about her own person, taking a bath once a month – whether she needed it or not. Harington went even further. He was most eccentric and took a bath every day!

The invention did not become common because of practical reasons. There was no adequate water supply and no drains or sewers. The latter restriction, in particular, meant that Harington’s “Necessary” provided no real improvement over the common latrine. Water supply continued to be a great problem. Piped water was supplied by water companies and customers filled their tanks by means of “quils” running from the main pipe into their property. They could only to do this during the two hours on each of three days in the week that water was pumped from the waterworks. Until the ball-valve was introduced in 1748 the householder (or his servants) had to remember to turn on the tap at the right time on the appropriate day – and to turn it off again! The water companies resented anybody who seemed to use more than his fair share. There is a striking example of this from 1770 when a Mr Melmouth of Bath had to remove his flush toilet because the water company cut off his supply because of it.

There were, however, sporadic installations in the houses of the rich and influential. For example, Sir Francis Carew had one installed in his house at Beddington, Surrey. This has famously been described by the antiquary John Aubrey who, in 1678, wrote:
a pretty machine to cleanse an House of Office, viz by a small stream of water no bigger than one’s finger, which ran into an engine made like a bit of a fire shovel, which hung upon its centre of gravity,so that when it was full a considerable quantity of water fell down with some force.

In fact, it was not until nearly two hundred years after Harington that there was any real progress in the development of the water closet. The first ever patent for a flushing water closet had been issued to Cumming in 1775, this was for the Strap, a sliding valve between the bowl and the trap. In 1777 Samuel Prosser applied for and received a patent for a plunger closet. A Bond Street watchmaker by trade, Cumming designed a toilet in which the water supply was brought low into the bowl, and some water remained after each flush. In his specification he claimed, as advantages of his closet, the shape of the pan, the manner of admitting water, and the fact that the sink trap was of an improved shape which totally emptied itself each time the closet was used.

The Cumming water closet was generally made of copper. It was a great improvement, but the seal at the bottom of the toilet leaked, continually emitting sewer gases into the home. By this time Water closets were beginning to be fitted inside houses and the dangers gradually became apparent. The apparatus was held to be so beneficial to the general health and well-being of the family that all that had to be done was put it under the stairs, with or without window, and connect it by means of an unventilated pipe to a cesspit. However, because foul gases leaking from the cesspit, an increasing number of deaths were reported. No one was aware at that time, that sewer gases were highly explosive, as well as being poisonous and carriers of life-threatening bacteria.

These problems were soon addressed by other inventors. The first manufacturer to began to make water closets in quantity was Joseph Bramah. He was a London cabinetmaker who regularly “fitted-up” water closets who set out to improve Cumming’s original idea. In a patent was issued to him in 1778, it is clear that he had discovered that by replacing the Cummings string valve closure with a crank-type or hinge mechanism, he would essentially get an air tight seal between the toilet and the cesspit beneath. This was a predecessor to the modern ball-cock and Bramah water closets continued to be sold until the 1880s. They were also used extensively on ships and boats of the period.

For the century after the introduction of the Bramah, it was customary for the lavatory bowls to be boxed in with a wooden surround. This changed with the introduction of the pedestal water-closet. This was produced by J G Jennings and unveiled at the Health Exhibition of 1884 as Jennikng’s Pedestal Vase. It was judged to be as perfect a sanitary closet as can be made and won the Gold Medal. Jennings was also the first to introduce the oval “picture frame” lavatory seat. It seems that this acquired its name because many of the less- sophisticated found a more worthy employment for it as a striking sourround for family and other portraits!

What, then of Thomas Crapper? He was an industrious plumber who opened a shop on Marlborough Street, London, in 1861, and called it The Marlboro’ Works of Thomas Crapper & Company. Crapper continuously tested toilets at the Marlboro Works, and had a 250 gallon water tank installed on the roof of the building for the purpose. He did make improvements to the water closet, inventing the pull- chain system, that gave a more powerful flush and an air tight seal between the toilet and the floor. He also patented several systems for venting the sewer gas by means of a pipe through the roof. He also teamed up with Thomas Twyford, the pottery maker.

Twyford was to emerge as the master toilet maker among the Englishmen. He revolutionized the water closet business in 1885 when he built the first trapless toilet in a one-piece, all china, design. It was unique because it was made of china, rather than the more common metal and wood contraptions. The internal workings of his water closet were based on a Jennings patent of 1852. The unit had a shallow basin with a dished tray and a water seal. The flush water drove the contents into the pan and then through the S-trap, a classic design that Twyford would refine and promote for the rest of the decade.

He soon changed his pottery assembly lines from turning out tableware to turning out toilets, with Crapper supplying the inner-workings. He also made toilets into art pieces, by molding them into many fancy shapes including dolphins and other sea creatures. Seeing his success his competitors, the fine porcelain makers Wedgewood and Royal Doulton soon followed suit. They all had the names of their firms conspicuously emblazoned on the toilet, in a nearly form of mass advertising.

There were some problems with this new toilet, however. The flushing action failed quite often, it was very noisy, and the seal would dry up if the toilet was not used often enough. Although Bramah installed over 6,000 toilets by 1797, without a tight seal, the sewer gas problem remained. By 1860, people were increasingly complaining of the odor from the gases pervading their homes. The answer to this problem appeared to lie in quite a different system – the Earth Closet….